Interventions: handling common challenges
As an interviewer, we don’t want to be too controlling or directive, but we don’t want to let the interview go just anywhere either.
Managing an interview is like dancing with a partner. If you are the “leader” in a couple dance, you have to do many things at the same time. You need to both lead and be responsive to your partner. You have to know where the other couples are on the floor. You want to lead in a way that will allow your partner’s dancing skills to shine. And you want to communicate to your partner that you are enjoying your time together.
In an interview, you are like the leader in a dance. You have to know where this story is supposed to end us and guide it there. But you also have to be responsive to what your interviewee is saying. You have to communicate your interest in the conversation and in the interviewee. You have to keep track of the time. If you have 40 minutes for interview, then you know you must reach the end of the story in 10 minutes so that you have time to ask about reflections. And finally, you must keep tabs on whether the interview is getting you what you need. Is the interview on track? Are there characters, complexity, life in the story? If it is not, you must intervene.
Steering – and, if necessary, rescuing – an interview is a learned skill. But there are some good questioning strategies that you can use to handle common challenges. None of these will work all the time; some interviews simply can’t be salvaged. But these strategies will increase your chances of success.
Challenge: The interviewee launches into a side story that doesn’t seem relevant to the practice story .
- Long tangents take up time that must be used to elicit the practice story. Listen well enough to be sure that the “tangent” isn’t going to tell you something surprising or important, then intervene.
- Say things like, “Coming back to the story …” “So, what did you do next?” “So how did you ___________?” “So what did that mean for your project?”
- If those attempts fail, you may need to be even more direct: “I’m concerned that we won’t have time to get to the end of this story … So what happened after ____________?”
Challenge: The interviewee describes a program in the passive voice. There are no actors; things just happen. Or else, everything is done by a generic “we”; there is no “I” to tell you about the interviewee’s practice.
- Say things like, “I’m curious about your role in X. What did you do?”
- Ask for clarification: “ ‘We’ means whom?” “ ‘We’ refers to ….?” "Who were the stakeholders?" [audio example]
Challenge: The interviewee continually shifts to other people’s actions, not their own.
- Bring them back with questions like, “What did you do?” [audio example]
- Remind them that you’re curious about their work, that you’re trying to understand what they do.
Challenge: The interviewee is mostly telling you about generalities, abstract ideas, or broad programming components, leaving you with a story that doesn’t have many characters or much action.
- Try asking: “Can you give me an example of ____________? ”
- Consider that the interviewee may not really know what you’re interested in. Try explaining it again. Let them know that you’re interested in how they really worked. Ask: “How did you handle __________? How did you respond to __________? How did you deal with ____________?” [audio example]
- Trying asking questions with words that imply images: “I’m trying to imagine what I would have seen if I had been a fly on the wall…”
- Try asking specifically for stories: “Can you tell me a story about a time that illustrates what you’re talking about?”
- It may be that you are asking questions at too large or abstract a level. For example, asking about a very complex program overall may yield only generalities, while asking the interviewee to tell you about work with one group or in one neighborhood will generate rich stories that will provide insight into the overall complexity.
Challenge: The interviewee oversimplifies his/her work, makes the story less complex or less political than it actually was, or hides the relationship between what happened and who made it happen.
- You can ask directly, "Did you believe what they said?" or "Did it really all fall into place that simply?" [audio example]
- You may need to be provocative: “So, it sounds like all you did is X” (e.g., provide technical assistance, show up and lead a meeting). “So, it all sounds very simple. Everything just all fell in place and you didn’t have to do anything?” Sometimes reflecting as starkly as possible the interviewee’s oversimplification (without sounding sarcastic!) will help draw out the complexity of the work.
- You can pose an “argument” as a way to probe more deeply: “How do you deal with those who say ….?” Remember, this is not about arguing for your own views, but a technique to draw out the interviewee if needed.
Challenge: The interviewee communicates an idea with body language, facial expression or by pointing, but doesn't articulate the idea in words.
- Try to put words to the interviewees action or name what he or she is pointing to. For example, "You mean they were angry?" or, you mean, "He was sitting with his heads in his hands?" This will give the interviewee the chance to agree with your description or clarify. Either way, you'll have the words you need for transcript and profile. [audio example]
- Tell the interviewee directly, "We can't capture that on the audio; you'll have to put it into words." [audio example]